“Oh I’m being so bad!” (while eating chocolate cake).
“I’ll be good tomorrow and eat a salad” (while enjoying pizza).
Talk of being “bad” or “good” around food is so common you’ve likely heard it discussed today at lunch, or even said it (or thought it) yourself. In our culture there are different ways of eating, some deemed good and some bad - but why? Where does this moral association with food come from?
Many places, actually, but let’s look at a few of the main ones...
As the name describes, fat phobia is a fear of fat, and in our culture we are taught to fear and hate fat from the day we are born. We see fat associated with negative character traits in all types of media, starting as early as children’s shows.
Let’s call it what it is - brainwashing. We cannot underestimate the power that repetitive messaging has on shaping our beliefs and views of ourselves and others. It’s why racism and sexism and homophobia exist. When we learn certain beliefs at an early age and it’s reinforced through our social and familial experiences, we believe it to be truth or “just the way things are”.
The negative stereotypes often associated with fatness are: lazy, unhealthy, sloppy, unattractive and stupid. Yes, some fat people can be these things but guess what? So can thin people. Fat people can also be active, healthy, neat, attractive and smart. But because the most common associations we see in our culture are of the former, a belief is developed that all people in larger bodies must be that way.
There was a commenter on my Instagram page who said “I’m just attracted to fit people”. Their association is that only thin people can be fit (which simply isn’t true), but even more so, the implication was that they “couldn’t help it”, there was some kind of “natural” preference towards thinness innate within them - but it’s not innate - it’s conditioning. Otherwise, no one would find people in larger bodies attractive and surprise! - fat people find love and get married all the time.
If we were raised in a culture that showed us a variety of bodies in all shapes and sizes with equal representation of both good and bad qualities, we wouldn’t be so quick to associate one body type with only negative qualities. But we don’t live in that culture - we live in one with widespread weight stigma, and so we fear fat. It’s understandable then, that we want to be seen as “good” (thin) and not “bad” (fat).
However, what and how much we eat, and how fat we are isn’t a one to one ratio. As much as we hear “calories in vs. calories out”, the way our body size is determined is not so clear cut. You all know people who “eat whatever they want” and stay thin. The same is true for people who eat little and still stay fat.
Yes, to some degree what we eat affects our size, but if it weren’t for fatphobia and misconceptions around weight and health, why would it be an issue if we gained weight?
2. Old Religious Beliefs
Take a look at how we label and talk about food that is pleasurable or rich with sweetness and flavour: “decadent”, “sinfully delicious”, “death by chocolate”. And how do we label “good” foods? Know the popular ‘Snackwells foods’, and the now super popular ‘Halo Top’ ice cream? Each of these items, which are reduced in calories (to prevent weight gain) is labeled with a variation of “this is good”. We want to be good don’t we? And now I can eat my ice cream and still be as good as an angel!
But again, where did this association of high calorie, delicious food and “sinfulness” come from? We can look at Sylvester Graham for some insight. Graham was an early 1800’s Presbyterian minister who created the now popular Graham cracker. I like graham crackers, (especially as the base for a pie!), but Graham definitely didn’t intend for it to be used for pies, and instead developed this cracker for a completely different purpose - to temper people’s “sinful” desires (mainly sexual). Graham felt that delicious, spicy and even hot food led to a temperamental disposition and libidinousness. He was also on the anti-sugar train and an early proponent of veganism (not because he loved animals, but because he wanted people to avoid the richness of meat).
So we can see that there is a very strong association with eating “light”, “pure” and “clean” foods with goodness and righteousness. And very negative, downright sinful associations with eating foods that are rich in taste, have high caloric content and bring us pleasure. But the truth is, there is nothing sinful about eating cake! It’s just cake! This cartoon expresses this sentiment perfectly.
There is also another big influence that keeps us associating food and morality...
Yes, unfortunately there is another “ism” to add to the already long list. This one is inconspicuous because health is something that we can pretty much all agree is a benefit to have in our life, so aren’t we being “good” when we’re pursuing it?
Lucy Aphramor, a co-author of the enlightening book Body Respect, defines Healthism as:
The problem is that we’ve made pursuing health a moral obligation, and placed almost all the burden of responsibility to achieve it on the individual (and the blame when health is not present). We miss the mark when we think that one’s health is primarily a result of health behaviours (i.e. eating a balanced diet, exercising, not smoking etc.), when actually, it makes up only 25% of what impacts our health. Keep in mind, food is just a part of that 25%. Included in that 25% is also the amount of sleep we get, how much alcohol we consume, if we go outside regularly to get fresh air, etc.
We tend to focus on these behaviours because we can control them. What we can’t control as easily are the other factors that impact our health such as genetics, our environment, the medical care we receive, and our social characteristics such as our gender or race and the associated discrimination that comes with them. The chronic stress experienced from racism, sexism and even size discrimination affects the quality of our health, but we can’t individually control them, so we focus on what we can: our individual health behaviours.
Our society rewards and validates people who pursue these health behaviours for being “good”; and blame those who don’t for being “bad”, (for not doing the “right things”). But even if we did all the “right things”, it still doesn’t guarantee health, because as pointed out above, other factors such as how much money a person earns has more of an impact on health outcomes than any behaviour does. If someone is in a low income bracket or doesn’t have good access to health care, no matter how “well” they eat or how much they exercise, their health outcomes will be worse off than a person in a high income bracket who performs the same behaviours.
All of this to say: no one is “bad” for eating cake or pizza or whatever they enjoy eating (even frequently), nor is one “good” for eating lots of salads and following all the health “rules”. Performing health behaviours doesn’t make someone more worthy a person than someone else.
Moralizing food also creates a fear of it, (and a fear of our innate desires). It's healthy to want to experience pleasure while eating and if chips or chocolate brings that pleasure - that's OK! It's when we shame ourselves for eating foods we enjoy that our anxiety levels increase, we distrust ourselves, and we're apt to binge on the "forbidden" foods the more we restrict them from our diets.
So at your next meal, even though it may be really hard, refrain from saying you’re being “good” or “bad” based on what you’re eating and just EAT. Enjoy life and get pleasure from your food (even if it’s to Sylvester Graham’s dismay). It’s one less thing to stress about and, ironically, you’ll be healthier for it.
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